DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a nonfactor during Speedweeks.
He finished second in the Budweiser Shootout and the Daytona 500 last year. He was the pole-sitter for the 500 in 2011, the 10-year year anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona International Speedway. He started second and finished second in 2010, weaving his way through traffic in a frantic final lap.
He typically garners headlines and the majority of the attention leading up to NASCAR’s “Great American Race,” an event forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
This year, Earnhardt has been a mere footnote.
He qualified 19th for Sunday’s Daytona 500, his lowest starting spot in 14 years at NASCAR’s premier event. His confidence remains high, possibly because he’s glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.
“We’ve got a good car,” Earnhardt said. “Anybody can win, but we’ve got a good piece. If we get that balance right and get the thing to turning good, we’ll have a great shot.”
Early results say otherwise.
Earnhardt wrecked several cars during a Daytona test in January. He didn’t lead a lap in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited last week and finished eighth in what boiled down to a 12-car field. He was off the leaders’ pace in his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday and came home ninth.
Those race results tend to be an indicator of who’s the one to beat in the Daytona 500.
So it’s no surprise that Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and even Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick have gotten more hype than Earnhardt.
Then again, anything can and often does happen in the Daytona 500.
With a completely revamped race car for 2013, the same could be said for the season.
Earnhardt made the Chase for the championship last year, but finished 12th after missing two of the final six races because of post-concussion symptoms.
But running in the top five in points most of the season, and even spending a few weeks atop the standings, provided a big boost for a ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Cup championship.
“I think we were in the conversation last year,” Earnhardt said. “Really excited about how consistent we were last year. We’ve been able to improve as we’ve worked together. We’ve been able to improve steadily over the last couple years. I hope that’s able to continue.
“I hope we haven’t realized our true potential. Maybe this year, if we can step it up another notch, we’d be right there where we’ve been striving to be the last couple years. It isn’t going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams. We were pretty close last year and feel pretty good about that.”
It could be weeks, maybe months, before Junior knows how his No. 88 Chevrolet will stack up in 2013.
This much he understands: the team has made strides on the field, but he needs some luck to come out on top after 36 races.
“No matter how close it is or far off it is, it’s hard to really put your finger on exactly what you’re missing, especially when you work with a company like I do that’s got all the parts, pieces, all the personnel,” he said. “It really comes down to the minds that are in control of everything, making the right calls and decisions on the racetrack.”
Fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion, believes it’s only a matter of time before everything clicks for Earnhardt.
“It seems like guys peak at certain moments in the season,” Gordon said. “With the way the points are now, you’ve got to peak right at the end of the season. You got to be careful of getting off to too good of a start and how you maintain that momentum. ... Junior had a great start to the season and then it seems like some things flattened out a little bit for them and it was hard for them to get it ramped back up. I don’t see why (he can’t win a championship). It’s a great team, best organization.”
Despite the results, Earnhardt remains NASCAR’s most popular driver. Seeing him take the lead in any race, especially at Daytona, sets off huge ovations. That hasn’t happened often enough for Earnhardt.
But NASCAR’s Gen-6 cars, redesigned to more closely replicate production vehicles on the showroom floor, could be the difference. He has raved about the cars’ stylish lines and drivability.
His fondness for the new car hasn’t translated to any success during Speedweeks. The 2004 Daytona 500 champion does have one race — a fairly important one — remaining.
“I say positive things about it because that’s the way I feel, but I think everybody needs to just be patient, let the car kind of come to us, let us sort of improve the car over time,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a step in the right direction. There’s so much to learn. We’ll make it a better car. We’ll learn what the car likes and doesn’t like. I think it’s starting off on the right foot.”